Fifty years after his assassination, we have become used to seeing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presented as the martyred civil rights leader who made stirring speeches and braved hatred—a symbol as much as a man. Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop, now onstage at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, aims to give us a more personal view of the human being, while at the same time passing on to us the inspirations for achieving justice and equal rights that drove him.
The play opens in the ordinary, boring room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, the evening before King was murdered. King (Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha) is alone and lonely, tired from being on the road and from delivering his now famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech during his appearance on behalf of striking sanitation workers. Desperate for a cigarette, a cup of coffee—and yes, perhaps a chance to interact with another human being—he calls for room service. And the maid who turns up to serve him, Camae (Emerald Rose Sullivan), is more than he could have expected in response.
She delivers the coffee, all right, plus several Pall Malls and even some advice for the good doctor. Hands on her hips, sassy, streetwise and sometimes swearing, Camae in her maid’s uniform seems a certain kind of black woman of the era, and there’s a flirtation/attraction between her and King, even as the lonely man is also dialing up his wife and talking to his young daughter on the telephone.
But, without giving away the main conceit of Hall’s play, about halfway through the show lightning strikes—both metaphorically and in reality, as a storm is taking place outside the motel room. And the conversation between King and Camae, initially light and good-humored, takes a more serious turn, as she reveals more about herself—and his future—to him.
The production, directed by Chuck Smith, starts slowly and in a subdued tone, but it does give us a chance to see King’s dark sense of humor, his doubts about himself and his mission, and, eventually, his fears of mortality. Murtadha (who played King in Asolo Rep’s productions of All the Way and The Great Society) is a natural at delivering King’s preacher cadences, but here he’s also given the chance to show us more inside the man when he’s not performing for a crowd. Sullivan, who’s had smaller, less showy roles at WBTT before, is a match for him as the evening builds to a close, with a montage of historical clips accompanied by some dramatic heights reached by both actors. The result should leave you moved and reflective.
The Mountaintop (which runs about 100 minutes, with no intermission) continues through Feb. 18; for tickets call 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.